By the time you read this, the United States will have reimposed most Iranian sanctions that it suspended following the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. President Donald Trump announced the move Monday morning in an official White House statement (which, ahem, is how the government actually announces policy, Twitterverse).
The sanctions “include reimposing sanctions on Iran’s automotive sector and on its trade in gold and precious metals, as well as sanctions related to the Iranian rial,” the statement read. Additional sanctions, “targeting Iran’s energy sector, including petroleum-related transactions, as well as transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran,” will resume on November 5.
The move represents the final step in Trump’s controversial decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — which was simply an “agreement,” not a treaty.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow with think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote about the dilemma facing Trump just a few days ago. In an article for the Weekly Standard, a publication mostly associated with the neoconservative movement (which, at its core, advocates using American military might to spread democracy), Gerecht and co-author Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Trump “may have to deal with Iran more decisively than his predecessors.”
It seems the Trump administration thinks the same way. One anonymous official insisted in a conference call that “regime change” is not the administration’s goal. But there may well be no other direction.
Regime change, like it or not
There has been significant unrest among the Iranian people recently. Following the 2009 elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency, Iran’s burgeoning middle class rose up in the “Green Movement.” The clerics soon put them back in their place, purging moderates from the government. Then late last year, the mullahs began to lose their grip on the lower classes — those people who Gerecht and Takeyh call “the regime’s last bastion of power, tied to theocracy by a sense of piety and the provisions of the welfare state.”
President Barack Obama eased sanctions and returned $1.7 billion in cash (loaded onto pallets and flown to Tehran), and as much as $56 billion more through the banking system. But instead of using that money to ease the suffering of its people, Iran has chosen to use much of it to increase tensions across the Middle East.
It has continued to funnel money to Hamas and Hezbollah, the terrorist organizations making life miserable in Lebanon and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (which Hamas itself controls presently). It has propped-up the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria, and has sent missiles and other armaments to the Houthis who control large parts of Yemen.
The Houthi regime has used those missiles not just against the Yemenis fighting to take back control of their country, but against Saudi Arabia, who is fighting to remove the Houthis from power and restore order in Yemen.
With so much unrest in Iran, it’s hard to see the reimposition of strict sanctions as leading anywhere other than regime change. This White House statement speaks only of “economic isolation” as the consequence of an Iranian failure to “change its threatening, destabilizing behavior and reintegrate with the global economy.”
If the mullahs don’t back off their nuclear ambitions, which seems unlikely, the sanctions will continue to tighten for as long as Trump, and any successor Republican president, remains in power. Regime change is a second-or third-order effect of that economic isolation. And as we’ve seen, America is great at planning for war, but not so great at planning for the peace that follows.
Let’s hope there’s a little more thought going into “what comes next” this time around.